The true picture of a Ugandan entrepreneur

Zirolera and her husband at work. PHOTO BY WILL MONTEITH

What you need to know:

Uganda is the most entrepreneurial country in the world, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. It indicates that more than a quarter of the adult population in the country has started a business. The story of Sarah Zirolera, a tailor who ventured into the clothing and fashion industry, shows circumstances more often than not force Ugandans to fend for themselves, writes Will Monteith

Everyday, Sarah Zirolera wakes up at around 6am. She sleeps on the floor of a 3x3 metre room on the outskirts of Kampala, with her two children, Titus and Adrick, surrounded by four sewing machines. Colourful shirts, dresses and accessories hang from all four walls of the room, stitched from cotton and brightly coloured cotton kitenge.

After a quick breakfast of millet porridge, Sarah sends the children to school and begins work, with her brother and apprentice, Robert. A few quick rearrangements and the room is transformed into the workshop and headquarters of Zisat Real Tailors Limited.

Zirolera pushes her foot on the pedal, sparking one of the machines into life. Today, she has to finish the embroidery on a prototype hat for a Rotary International conference in Tanzania, stitch 100 designer bow ties for Sebo Designs, a male accessories line based in Boston, US, and finish a dress for a friend attending a wedding in Bugolobi.

Like millions of others in the country, Zirolera makes a living by taking on financial risks in the hope of returning a daily profit. In other words, she is an entrepreneur, working in what has recently been declared the most entrepreneurial country in the world.

The rise of entrepreneurship in Africa

The idea of entrepreneurship means different things to different people. In Africa, like much of the rest of the world, media coverage of entrepreneurship tends to focus on well-educated young people who have drawn acclaim for the creation of products with mass appeal; for example, Andrew Rugasira of Good African Coffee (Uganda), Teresa Mbagaya of EcoSchool (Zimbabwe), and Abiola Olaniran of Gamsole (Nigeria).
Entrepreneurial success is generally considered in absolute rather than relative terms. As such, we hear much less about the entrepreneurship of people who take smaller, but no less significant, risks as part of their day-to-day strategies to survive and support their families. These people are often associated with a different world - that of poverty and aid.

It has been argued that aid is both an enabler and an inhibiter of entrepreneurism on the continent. This debate resurfaced when research revealed that charitable clothes donations from Europe and America are sold in vast quantities in African marketplaces, to the detriment of domestic clothing markets.
Second-hand Levi’s jeans, Clarks shoes and Fred Perry polo shirts are available from $1-5 (Shs3,600 to Shs18,000) in Kampala’s markets; prices with which local tailors are unable to compete.

Putting the finishing touches on a kitenge bowtie, Zirolera provides her take on the domestic clothing industry: “Ugandans don’t appreciate things that are made here. If you use the label ‘Made in Uganda,’ your clothes will remain in the market for a long time, but if you use ‘Made in England’ they will go instantly!”

Zirolera ’s story provides an example of the mixed blessing of entrepreneurism in Uganda. One of six siblings, she grew up in Namasoga, a small village in Iganga District, around 100 kilometres east of Kampala. Like 30 per cent of girls in Uganda, Zirolera dropped out of school due to the cost of school fees, at the age of 13.

After three years in the village, she moved to the nearby town of Jinja and began working for a large textile company, sewing uniforms for schools and the military for Shs1,000 a day (then around US$0.70). She explains: “The work was difficult, but I was interested in it… I found that I was faster than the other tailors!” She met new people through her job, got married and had two children.

After a few years in Jinja, Zirolera met a lady working for a social enterprise in Kampala, making kitenge shirts and dresses for export. Sensing an opportunity, she took some of her work to Kampala and arranged to meet the production manager, who offered her a position as a tailor for a salary of Shs220,000 a month. Embracing the creativity of her new job, Zirolera quickly established herself as the foremost tailor in the organisation, involved in the design as well as the production of shirts and dresses.

Each month, she sent a proportion of her wages back to the village to contribute toward the school fees of her younger siblings.

However, Zirolera ’s work was soon disrupted by broader shifts in the industry. Facing increased competition, her employer outsourced production to a large textile company in order to reduce costs. Zirolera ’s role revoked back to that of a contracted labourer paid a day rate rather than a salary - a change that left her unable to support her family in Namasoga. Furthermore, her move to Kampala effectively ended her relationship with her husband, who remarried and stopped providing support for their two children.

In response, Zirolera took decisive action. She withdrew her savings and put down rent on a small building on the outskirts of Kampala in an attempt to establish her own business. Zisat Real Tailors Limited - an abbreviation of her name: Zirolera Zirolera Tibeyawulira – has now been in operation for more than 12 months, building up a client base from the personal and professional networks that Zirolera had established over the previous years. Her clients include international organisations such as Rotary International and Sebo Designs, as well as her friends and neighbours.

Zirolera ’s customers provide glowing endorsements of her work. Sam Wheatley, co-founder of Sebo, explained: “We were looking for someone with experience of working with kitenge and came across Zirolera , who is one of the most skilled tailors we have ever worked with. In addition to doing a great job of making our products, she also helps out with design and development. She is not only a great tailor, but also a patient and understanding person.”

Another of Zirolera ’s customers was so impressed with her work that he provided her with capital for an electric sewing machine, which she paid back over time. She has since added three more machines and recruited her brother, Robert, as an apprentice.

The challenge ahead

Reflecting on her journey so far, Zirolera explains that she is now able to help her family in ways that she could not while she was still in the village, for example, by sending money home and providing work for relatives. However, she has found the task of running a full-time business an extracting process.
In addition to managing production, finance and sales, Zirolera is also a full-time model, exhibiting hand-made Zisat tops, skirts and dresses as she makes her way around Kampala.

Rent and electricity costs mean that she’s not yet making as much as she was as a salaried tailor, and her work is frequently interrupted by power cuts. Nevertheless, Zirolera says she is happiest when working on clothes for her own customers, emphasising, “that’s what I have made; that is my creation.”

Taken as a whole, Zirolera ’s story is illustrative of the conflicting nature of entrepreneurship in Uganda. Although the decision to start a business was her own, this decision was made from a limited set of choices, restricted, for example, by declining employment opportunities for skilled tailors in the country. Like thousands of others in the capital, her entrepreneurship represents a creative response to a difficult set of circumstances, albeit one through which she is able to express her considerable talents.

Zirolera ’s challenge is to ensure that clothes displaying the label ‘Made in Uganda’ no longer remain in the market after closing time.